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I was sparring with Gawain in the lists, tired, but exhilarated at the same time. I had been in Camelot for a week now, and, while I was still not nearly a master of the sword, or really even up to the standards of most of the other squires, I felt I had improved, and Sir Gawain’s encouragement and assurance on that matter gave me pride and belief in myself. I didn’t cry myself to sleep anymore for which I was thankful. Though some nights, when I felt alone, I would take my blankets and sleep across Gawain’s threshold like a favored servant. He had never said anything about it, and I was grateful for that, and all the care he had given me.
He had been nothing but kind, though, as Arthur had told me, he was not afraid to work me hard. Indeed, I had worked harder than ever I had in all my life in that first week I was in Camelot. I started my day with Sir Gawain at the crack of dawn, helping him into his armor, and finding him breakfast, before we would head out to the lists so he could train with the other knights. Then he would either take Fenna to the lists to train for upcoming tournaments, or he would take me for a ride and teach me and my horse, Elith, combat maneuvers. Then came my training with the sword, and by the time we were finished with that it was time for supper. After supper, I left Sir Gawain to his own devices, most often drinking and playing games with the other knights, and took his armor and weapons into my own small room and cleaned, sharpened, and repaired them for the next day when the cycle would repeat. It might be monotonous, but it was a welcome monotony, that gave me a peace of mind I had not know for years, since the news of Arthur’s rise to the throne had come to the remote mountain cabin of Lady Morgan.
But I was happy in Sir Gawain’s company, in fact, I had begun to think of him as something of an older brother, for he treated me so, working me hard, often jesting at my expense, but always there to offer encouragement with an easy laugh. And I would not forget that he had been there when Sir Lancelot would have given me a beating.
Lancelot had not bothered me again at that time, though our first meeting was in no way the only one we would have the pleasure of as will later be seen. Apart from him, and Sir Percival who I trained with on occasion as well, I got to know the other knights from Arthur’s inner circle, and marveled at the vast differences in character the men had, but who came together as the best of brothers with their love of Arthur and determination to serve him unto death.
There was Bedivere first who was one of Arthur’s top knights among the others, having a huge amount of loyalty and devotion to his king. I could see that they had likely grown up training together for the friendship between them surpassed duty. Then there was Sir Caradoc who had gained a crippling wound in one arm, but still managed to fight well enough to defeat most of the fresher recruits and would certainly never be the first to fall in battle. Among others were Sir Tristan and more too numerous to mention in this tale but they were all brave and all gallant and they loved their king above all else. Each day my desire to be like them grew so that it drove me onward in my training to new levels.
That day, though, Gawain and I were training by ourselves while the other knights were having their own duels, looking as if they would run each other through, but I had learned while watching them, that their training was something of a dance. The swords flashed close to cutting, and sometimes did leave small nicks or bruises that we squires would have to patch for our respective knights in the evening, but no one was ever injured beyond laughing it off.
We had braked shortly for a drink of water before going back into the fighting. We were using staves for now, until I got a little better so neither of us would be hurt too badly should an accident occur. Gawain had his hand on my elbow, lifting it slightly as he shoved my feet apart with the toe of his boot.
“Your footwork still needs a bit of coaxing,” he chuckled, kicking me fondly in the ankle as he adjusted my feet. “That’s the hardest part, but once you get that down, you’ll find your entire stance will improve drastically. So, let us just practice the positions again until you get your feet in the right place. Up!”
I ran through the stances as he called them out, both offences and defenses, and he nodded approvingly as I tried to make sure my feet were in the appropriate positions, and had to admit that I felt much more grounded with them farther apart.
“Don’t get into the habit of looking down to make sure your feet are in the right place,” Gawain said, knocking my chin upward with a fist. “You’re not going to be able to do that in a real battle. You have to feel the stance, and know by the way your body is resting, that you are in the right position.”
In the middle of our practice, an excited flush went through the lists, and when I looked up, I saw that King Arthur was striding out dressed for fighting, with Queen Guinevere on his arm. I had not yet had the pleasure of seeing the Queen, nor had I seen Arthur since the morning of my arrival. Business and affairs of state had kept him in the castle, and I had not been there since being appointed squire to Gawain, thus we had not met for a second time. As excited and anxious as I was to see Arthur again, I couldn’t help my gaze sticking to the Queen. As a boy, I had always thought Morgan la Fay the most beautiful woman in the world—until I knew what hid behind that dark beauty—but Queen Guinevere surpassed her by far. In grace, kindness, and golden beauty, she was like the sun to Lady Morgan’s night. Her hair was golden red, and was plaited into a tail that hung to her waist. Her eyes were green and lively when she smiled as she was doing then, her hand tucked firmly into the crook of Arthur’s arm. I loved her more than anyone then, with the adoring love of a boy who would give his life for the chance of bleeding for a fair lady’s hand.
Everyone in the lists stopped their fighting to bow, and I knew it was for Guinevere’s sake rather than Arthur’s for he was like a brother to all these men, whereas she was their Queen, and though every last man would die for Arthur gladly, she held their fullest respect, even above him.
Arthur stopped in front of Sir Gawain and I and I bowed my head in respect, but could not help raising my eyes to look at Guinevere again. To my surprise, she was looking back at me with a soft smile and I smiled shyly back with a slight flush on my cheeks at being caught staring. I saw Merlin trailing behind them, hanging back somewhat, watching his king, but leaning up against a rack of lances nearby.
“Gawain,” Arthur greeted his friend. “How does your new squire?”
“He’s still learning his way around a sword in the lists, but he does well enough with the polishing,” Gawain jested with a wink and friendly jostle to me.
“And does he work you hard, Mordred?” Arthur asked me.
“He does, my lord, have no fear,” I said, and Arthur laughed, turning to his Queen.
“This is Mordred, my newest trainee, who wishes to become a knight,” he said to her and her green eyes once again turned upon me as she held out her hand.
“Well met, Mordred,” she said sweetly.
“Likewise, my lady,” I replied, blushing again as I took her soft hand in mine and kissed the fingertips.
“I look forward to getting to know you better,” she said and I dare say my heart soared so high at that moment that it felt as if it would go out my throat.
“And how is your sword work, Mordred?” Arthur asked, turning back to me. “I would like to see you perform.”
I felt flustered, but I nodded. “As you wish, my lord.” I turned back to Gawain, but realized that Arthur had commandeered his stave and was knocking it against my own. He grinned at my befuddlement.
“Ah, young Mordred, how do you think I choose my best and most trusty knights? I must test them myself, to see if they are worthy of my trust.”
“He won’t tell you,” Merlin drawled from his position several yards away. “But he’s the best fighter here. So I hope Sir Gawain’s training doesn’t fail you, dear Mordred.”
I was somewhat anxious, but I had learned during my time with Lady Morgan not to let anxiety show, so my outward appearance was calm and stilled, ready for Arthur’s attack. I took a perfect stance, slightly crouched, and shifted my hands on the stave in readiness.
Arthur’s attack came without warning, and I just barely got my stave up in time to catch it. The wood clacked together with such force that vibrations numbed me all the way up to my shoulders. But after a few more forceful blows, I found my balance again and was able to make a few strikes myself, causing Arthur to grin and laugh happily. There was a furious flurry of blows between us, and I found myself fighting just to block them in time, my hands almost jarring off the stave with the force of the blows and so numb I could barely feel my fingers, but a desperation born of self-preservation had welled up inside me and I just managed to block all the blows before they did me any harm.
But that wasn’t to last, for just when I thought I was getting up a good stride, Arthur broke through all my defenses and cracked me on the shoulder, throwing me off and nearly to my knees with the force of the blow, and then before I could regain my balance, he had hooked a foot behind my knee and I was flat on my back, all my air having escaped me in a wheezing whoosh. Arthur’s stave prodded me in the middle of my chest as he stood over me, grinning.
“You’ll need a bit of work yet, Mordred; mind your footwork. But I am impressed so far, and I see great potential in you.” He reached down and gave me a hand up, swinging my slight frame onto my feet again before clapping me on my shoulder.
Merlin laughed and I looked over at him, slightly offended. “Don’t take offense, lad,” the sorcerer said. “No one ever beats Arthur, not even his best men. You did well—you just lasted a little over a minute. That’s an incredibly good start.”
I wondered if he was jesting, but as usual with Merlin, it was impossible to tell his true meaning. In any case, Arthur was grinning, though looked a bit self-conscious, and I got the impression he didn’t like to be praised, and also that Merlin liked to do it just to needle him.
“I think Sir Gawain and I have run you hard enough for today, Mordred,” Arthur said, tossing me the stave he had used as well. “I have been cooped in the palace for a week with paperwork, and I need a good workout if I don’t want to go to fat. But I have one more task for you, if you would kindly accept: Please escort Queen Guinevere back to the palace for me?”
I was a bit shocked, though delighted at the task entrusted to me. Both because of the obvious fact that I would have the honor of escorting the beautiful queen, but also for the fact that Arthur had trusted me enough to do so. That thought brought on a sudden bout of melancholy that I had all but forgotten during the invigorating fight. If only Arthur knew of how I came to be in Camelot, and of the lies I told him, he would not be so ready to trust me with so much as emptying chamber pots. I gave Guinevere my arm, shamefully aware of my perspiring state, and started off back toward the castle.
We were silent, I not knowing what to say, and plagued by my own dark thoughts that I did not want to burden the queen with. However, those green eyes were very perceptive, and she soon noted my sadness.
“What ails you, Mordred? I thought you fought very well,” she said.
I smiled back at her, but knew it didn’t reach my eyes. “It is not that, my lady. I am not in the least ashamed of losing against my king, especially when I am still trying my hand at the sword. It is just that I have many things on my mind, and sometimes, they all seem to come crashing down.”
She pondered this for a while before she spoke again. “I can tell there is something that you fight against. A past that was less than happy? You need not tell me, Mordred; I will not pry in your private affairs. But know that if you ever need someone to talk to, I will always be there.”
I felt my heart lift again, though my throat ached at the unsuspected kindness. This time the smile I offered was genuine. “I will keep that in mind, my lady. I thank you for your kindness.”
“Arthur thinks much of you,” she said. “He said so when you first arrived. He sees great potential in you, as do I now that I know you. He has a gift for that, seeing into the hearts of men, and I believe Merlin thinks much of you as well, in his own way.”
“He is rather strange,” I said, then wondered if that was a little harsh and out of place. But Guinevere laughed, putting me at my ease as I fought to rectify what I had said.
“He is a bit, but sorcerers often are. I have known him for years, since we were children, and though strange he might be, there is never a man I would trust more with my husband’s life. Their friendship is more than that of Arthur’s knights, though he loves and revers them all; it is as strong as that of blood brothers. So much so that sometimes I forget they are not.” She smiled again and turned back to me, squeezing my arm gently. “One day you will become part of our little family as well, Mordred. I have no doubt of it.”
I was thankful that we had reached the palace and Queen Guinevere left me for the company of her maidens, for her words had given me such pain and longing that I feared I would weep in front of her. I bowed to her as quickly as propriety would allow and made my retreat to the barracks, my eyes smarting.
There was no way that I could murder Arthur even if I had previously wanted to. Not with how much Guinevere loved him. I was beginning to love him as well, and I had only met him twice, but there was something in me, that, despite the fact I knew my story had all been lies, felt as if he really were my long lost father. Perhaps because I had never known my own nor a male who was willing to play that role. But putting that aside, I knew it would kill me if I were to break Guinevere’s heart by killing him. There was no question in me anymore to the fact, and as I reached my room, I drew my sword and knelt, swearing upon it to forget Morgan la Fay and all she had told me and done to me, and what she would do if I failed to bide by her wishes, and just live my life here in Camelot as if I really were a squire and could be a normal young man and become a knight to serve and protect King Arthur.
I knew that it was all a dream, but it was a good dream nonetheless, and though I knew that someday I would have to face reality and wake up from it, I would enjoy it while it lasted.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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